“Condensed Milk” is one of many stories Varlam Shalamov wrote based on his experiences in the Gulag. They can be found in Kolyma Stories. (Amazon)
This article starts with a summary, then looks at themes and irony.
Summary of “Condensed Milk”
In a labor camp, the narrator and others envy Shestakov, an engineer-geologist who works in the office, exempt from the hard labor in the mines. Otherwise, the men’s feelings and emotions have been dulled.
The narrator wants to go lie down, but he stands at the commissary doors to look at and smell the bread. Shestakov, a former cellmate from Butyr Prison, calls to him. They’re not friends and they don’t usually talk. Shestakov hardly acknowledges his Moscow acquaintances. He wants to talk to the narrator and offers him a smoke.
Shestakov has new boots and proper socks. They walk behind the barracks and sit. Shestakov brings the narrator in on a plan. He will take a group of workers off the camp on a pass and they’ll make a break for the sea. He has a map. He can’t take this life anymore and won’t live on his knees.
The narrator thinks about the roads to the sea and how far away it is. He knows they won’t make it. He suddenly fears Shestakov, wondering how he got his post and at what price. He agrees to go, on the condition that he get some food first—condensed milk so he’ll have strength for the trip.
The narrator goes to the barracks and lies down. He tries to think about what Shestakov is doing. It’s obvious he’s paying for his job by setting up the group to turn them in. They’ll be killed or given extended sentences. The narrator knows the attempt is hopeless but can’t stop thinking of the milk. He falls asleep and dreams of it.
The next day, he’s distracted from his work. At quitting time he goes back to the barracks. Shestakov gives him two cans of condensed milk. He consumes them both in front of the other laborers, who watch him without any expectation of getting any. He finishes and the audience disperses.
The narrator tells Shestakov he’s changed his mind and to go without him. Shestakov understands and leaves without a word.
The next week, five people leave with Shestakov. Two are killed and the three others stand trial. Shestakov isn’t punished.
Six months later, the narrator sees Shestakov again at a different mine. He looks well fed and his socks are still in good shape. Shestakov doesn’t greet his old acquaintance. The narrator doesn’t think there’s any reason for him to act like that.
The theme of survival in obvious given the setting, and it’s also made clear in the text.
We’re told right away that the workers “lacked the strength to experience emotions, to seek easier work, to walk, to ask, to beg.” They have “an empty scorched sensation” and are “indifferent to everything.” It’s established immediately that they’re barely surviving.
The bread can only be purchased by the petty criminals. The political prisoners are limited to their rations, so everyone is always hungry.
The fact that Shestakov hardly greets his fellows doesn’t bother them because, “Everyone looked out for himself here.” The situation is so desperate that no one expects anyone to do anything for anyone else. We see another example of this when the narrator eats his cans of milk: “None of them could even hope that I would share this milk with them. Such things were unheard of . . .”
Shestakov is noteworthy for being well fed, having tobacco, and having new boots and socks, telling us that the others don’t have these basics.
The narrator’s survival instinct probably contributes to his ability to recognize Shestakov’s deception. He knows Shestakov is going to do what’s best for him. To keep his easy job and favored status, he will be willing to set up the others. His own survival takes precedence.
The narrator’s drive for survival likely contributes to the formation of his counter-plan as well. Instead of simply turning Shestakov down (as he’s suspicious immediately), he uses the opportunity to increase his chances of living—by obtaining some much needed food.
The issue of survival is also highlighted in the consequences that the escapees face. Two of them are killed at Black Springs (they don’t survive), and three stand trial which means longer sentences for them (decreasing their chances of survival).
Theme: Selfishness and Indifference
Related to the issue of survival is the resulting selfishness, and also how the circumstances lead to an indifference to others. Several points in the Survival section, above, also apply to selfishness and indifference, so I won’t repeat them here.
The extreme selfishness displayed by the characters, which would be shocking and reprehensible under other circumstances, is easy to understand in prisoners who are overworked, underfed, lacking any comforts, and simply trying to stave off death. Getting self-righteous over their behavior would require a massive failure of imagination.
The most extreme example of selfishness comes from Shestakov when he sets up his fellows, which he knows will result in their deaths or lengthened sentences. He does it to keep his easier job, and doesn’t care about what happens to them.
The most extreme example of indifference comes from the narrator. After getting his condensed milk and backing out of the escape attempt, he doesn’t say anything to anyone else. While he knows Shestakov’s deception means death for others, he feels no obligation to warn them, explaining “I didn’t know them.”
Irony in “Condensed Milk”
Here are a few instances of irony from the story:
- Before laying out his escape plan, Shestakov paves the way for it by saying, “I’m not willing to die.” This turns out to be true, but not in the way it first sounds. His survival instinct motivates his deception rather than a desire to help the workers and escape.
- While trying to persuade the narrator to escape with him, Shestakov says, “Better to die on your feet than live on your knees.” We find out that Shestakov believes the exact opposite.
- When Shestakov doesn’t greet him six months later, the narrator says “two cans of condensed milk aren’t such a big deal.” Of course, they are a very big deal under the circumstances. I assume Shestakov has to account for the two cans, putting pressure on him. They’re an even bigger deal to the narrator, as an extra rare treat while malnourished.
Of all the canned foods, why does the narrator want condensed milk?
To the narrator, condensed milk is the best. His sensuous description of it, that it must be eaten slowly and undiluted, gives it a special significance. It seems to be an indulgence as well as a necessity. It’s like a hybrid main course and dessert that gives him the most satisfying eating experience possible.